Can Too Much Honesty Get You into Trouble?

I’ve been a big fan of the truth in corporate communications from way back, even if a corporate answer is “We don’t know why X happened.” This opinion hasn’t always been shared by people I’ve worked with–not to say they advocated lying, just that that they believed that sharing “too much information” was not always in the best interests of the organization. Below are two recent examples of how “too much truth” can help or hurt you or your organization.

ULA: Speaking Unpleasant Truths Aloud

There are times, however, when sharing too much about how your organization operates or what its executives are thinking can get you into a bit of hot water. In short, yes, speaking unpleasant truths aloud can get you fired. Take, for example, the vice president at United Launch Alliance who recently shared a bit too much of ULA’s internal monologue with some engineering students at his alma mater.

I can probably guess at his motivations: he was trying to lay out for future aerospace engineers how large companies like ULA approach the space business and how things work “in the real world.” However, where Mr. Tobey stepped into a burning excrement bag of his own lighting was by revealing contractual details and strategy. If he had kept things high-level, theoretical, or hypothetical (i.e., without naming names), he would probably have gotten by with an internal slap on the wrist that no one outside of ULA would even hear about. However, Tobey named names (criticized Senator McCain, who has authority over his company’s contract with the U.S. Air Force). He expressed aloud the internal frustrations ULA and Lockheed Martin executives were having with McCain’s policy about using Russian-built engines for the Atlas V rocket. Even worse, he voiced some of the internal thinking ULA (or at least he) had regarding how to “silence” McCain.

Is Mr. Tobey entitled to his opinions regarding the policies of the U.S. Government? I would say yes–and he should feel free to express those opinions in a corporate setting where policies that impact his company’s welfare are being discussed. He can even offer suggestions for how best to counteract the policies that are hurting ULA. Where he erred was in airing these thoughts or conversations aloud, outside the board room, executive lounge, or water cooler. Beyond the halls of ULA, Mr. Tobey is expected to speak for the company, and the ULA “company line” is that they are willing to work with the U.S. Government (and by implication Senator McCain) to comply with whatever changes in policy come out of Washington, DC.

Senator McCain and the rest of our elected representatives are not blind to the fact that policy changes can make life difficult for government contractors. However, McCain and his peers are the ones with the authority to make those policies, and talking about your dislike for the changes or about ways to “silence” a sitting U.S. Senator are impolitic at least, detrimental to his company at worst. If the government feels that Company X is not going to be cooperative when changes happen, they can and will seek out another contractor. ULA quickly disavowed Tobey’s remarks, and Mr.Tobey is now out of a job. (Secondary lesson: just because you’re giving a talk to a group of college students, you should not assume that your remarks are “off the record.”)

BART: Despair Rears Its Ugly Head

Another case of painful honesty came out of BART recently–not me, you understand, but the person handling the Twitter account for the Bay Area Rapid Transit (subway) system in San Francisco. It started simply enough, with the writer responding to a current problem with service:

All our efforts are focused on resolving the electrical issues right now- apologies for all the trouble. We’re working on it.

After getting a few unhappy tweets in response, the BART writer laid out the ugly truth:

BART was built to transport far fewer people, and much of our system has reached the end of its useful life. This is our reality.

Not the news customers wanted to hear, but a happy-go-lucky, we’re-all-fine-here-now-thanks-how-are-you? response probably would not have gone over well either, would it? Or, as the BART account writer put it,

No – sugarcoating problems, especially ones obviously disrupting people’s lives, isn’t an effective or honest way to communicate.

After lamenting problems ranging from the need to replace track to the amount of time BART is given to do repairs, the writer even created a despairing hashtag: #ThisIsOurReality.

Was this an effective way of handling the situation? I might diverge with some corporate communications experts here, but I think it was. Because BART is a quasi-governmental organization, they are answerable in part to the public, and stating shortfalls or problems to the voters might result in more public interest and support for improving the system. The challenge–as it is with NASA and other government agencies–is determining how much a government agency can lobby the public on its own behalf. Is BART entitled to speak on its own behalf about the problems it faces? I believe so. Did the Twitter account writer do that speaking of his/her own accord or at the behest of management? That’s something I’ve yet to hear answered. That same government agency could just as easily be leaving itself wide open to criticism or to calls for privatization. However, at the very least, the discussions and statements the Twitter account writer engaged in prompted a more public discussion about what was essentially a local problem (you think I live in the Bay Area?).

As with the ULA example above, once you’re working for an organization that is directly or indirectly working with public funds, you are vulnerable to changes in public priorities or the pique of government officials overseeing your funding, so even speaking unpleasant truths aloud can be perceived as criticism. And while we Americans theoretically pride ourselves on “speaking truth to power,” that’s not to say that speaking that truth can come without consequences. You can speak your truth, but don’t be surprised if the people you criticize use what authority they have to take away your funding.

All of this is to say that I’ve learned a lot from 20+ years of working in corporate communication environments. And while my first impulse is still to speak the truth as I know it, it’s often best to get at least one or two other people to look over your shoulder and review what you write before it becomes the “company line.” You never know whom you’re going to amuse–or offend.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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One Response to Can Too Much Honesty Get You into Trouble?

  1. Larry Kunz says:

    Regarding BART: Josh Bernoff, a media pundit whose views I admire, agrees with you. He thought the BART tweets were refreshing in their candor, and so did I. I like how you juxtaposed the BART story with the ULA story, showing that it’s possible to be truthful and candid without exposing information that ought to be kept private.

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